Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Break

The Break / Katherena Vermette
Toronto: Anansi, c2016.
350 p.

I saw this book mentioned by some of the bloggers I know who always steer me in the right direction -- Buried in Print, Pickle Me This -- so I knew I had to find a copy.

It's a beautiful and harrowing read. Vermette writes of North End Winnipeg, of a large family of Metis women whose lives are affected by violence over and over again, as a systemic reality. But who are also people first, not victims, not just another statistic.

It's a nail-biting story, a mystery to be solved, at the same time that it is also a literary novel of family, history, belonging. It begins with a family tree, which is useful at the start since it's really a large tangle of female relatives at the heart of the book. But once you get reading the voices begin to separate themselves a bit more, and become recognizable.

As the book opens, we hear from many different characters; Stella who has moved to the other side of The Break -- an open field that stretches north to the edge of the city, and represents a division from the North End neighbourhood she grew up in; her cousins Lou, Cheryl and Paulina; her Kookum (grandma); niece Emily (victim of the crime at the centre of the book); her deceased mother, and more. There are a lot of narrators, and some of the cousins melded together for me, all seeming quite similar. But the effect of a chorus telling the story of the shades and facets of a female aboriginal experience in Winnipeg is strong; there are only a few men in the story, the focus is on women's lives. 

Including elements like gang culture, gender-based violence, drug and alcohol use, and abandonment, it's gritty, at times almost unbearably sad, and relentless in its expose of casual, everyday, continual racism affecting all aspects of the characters' lives. But it is a read that is necessary in this era. About 3/4 of the way through I started seeing what was coming, and was cringing from it -- Vermette doesn't hold back, and it's a hard conclusion to see. But it doesn't seem that 'justice' will be served, or will help in the end; it's the support of the women in this extended family, and their revisited cultural healing practices, that will help them through this crisis.

It's a dark story, perhaps a little long -- I felt that some of it could have been slightly streamlined -- but beautifully written with great compassion and great honesty. This family is made up of survivors, of women who, in the end, refuse to be seen only as victims. 


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